FRINGE 2021 REVIEW: Horsetale

Hit the Lights' 2021 Cincy Fringe show is Horsetale, a video production that weaves together handmade shadow puppetry created using vintage overhead projectors.

click to enlarge Hit the Lights' 2021 Cincy Fringe show is Horsetale, a video production that weaves together handmade shadow puppetry created using vintage overhead projectors. - Photo: Provided by Hit the Lights
Photo: Provided by Hit the Lights
Hit the Lights' 2021 Cincy Fringe show is Horsetale, a video production that weaves together handmade shadow puppetry created using vintage overhead projectors.


Hit the Lights Theatre Company is one of those “local kids make good” success stories. The storytelling company was born out of UC’s College-Conservatory of Music and is now well-established in the Big Apple. (Read more about their history here.) Their mission is to “tell simple stories through unconventional means.”

In the case of Horsetale, the simple story is that a horse and its tail are separated. Along the journey to find one another again, they each discover a sense of individuality.

That truly is the full story, and the audience will have no trouble following it. Simple! But that straightforward plotline provides a great deal of room for hose “unconventional means.”

Fringe fans might remember HTL’s 2015 show Dungeon, a video game-inspired romp using clever puppets and shadow play to bring their story to life, techniques that the company continues to use masterfully in Horsetale. The team employs six vintage overhead projectors (the kind you might have encountered in grade-school math class, depending on your age) and heaven-knows-how-many hand-drawn transparencies to create a robust romp in the American West.

There is also a parallel story, told through two (human) musicians who fall in and out of love. HTL’s description of Horsetale makes it sound as though this human story is the main story, but for me the musicians instead added nuance to the puppet tale. I’m not sure it ultimately matters: What’s important is that these parallel stories deepen one another, repeating their shared themes in clever ways. The horse tale is a visually complex action-adventure, and the musician tale shows how that story is also about love, distance, and reconnection.

HTL has done all they can to translate their compelling production process into something palatable on video, but it doesn’t measure up. They have recorded a live performance, but their production is so complex that it is difficult to take in all the magic that’s happening. One benefit of this format is that we are invited to see the backstage innerworkings, which are marvelous to watch — but that immersive feeling that HTL created in Dungeon, so critical for the awe this show should demand, does not carry over. It leaves the show feeling somewhat like their puppets: 2-D. 

The Cincinnati Fringe Festival takes place June 4-19. For more information, show descriptions, a schedule and tickets, visit cincyfringe.com.

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